By my rough estimate, I have been a fan of Bill Cosby for approximately 46 years. Only the Beatles, Smokey Robinson, and Don Rickles go back any further of the famous entertainers that I’ve admired since I was a small boy.
The first time I heard a Cosby comedy album it was his routine on Noah building the ark. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten years old, but I was completely amazed at how creative he was. I immediately became a huge fan, buying his albums, searching for his appearances on various TV comedies or dramas, filling in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, all the way to his hugely successful portrayal as Cliff Huxtable on his NBC sitcom in the eighties. I even enjoyed his less-successful persona as Hilton Lucas on the CBS show that aired in the late nineties.
Eventually I got to see him in person for the first time at an Indian casino when I lived in California, and I laughed straight for 90 minutes at the stories he told about his family, growing up in Philadelphia, and being a husband and father. He was hilarious.
As with most aging comedians, I didn’t think he was very funny as he got older. Still, I viewed him with a kind of reverence that one does for a show business legend. I thought his occasional stand-up routines on David Letterman’s program were worth watching in the same way that I enjoyed Bob Newhart or Don Rickles when they made their appearances in recent years. I watched in private tribute. It wasn’t something I talked about the next day at work, nor posted on Facebook, but I appreciated it anyway for the feeling of nostalgia.
I did feel his pain when he lost his only son in that terrible act of random violence many years ago, and I admired the dignity in which he and his wife Camille channeled their grief by creating the “Hello Friend” foundation.
Of course, I heard about stories and rumors of his philandering, an acknowledgement of a child born to a woman with whom he had an affair, payment towards child support, etc. Over the years I also watched with fascination as he spoke candidly about values within African-American culture. Likewise I also followed the resulting pushback that he received regarding those comments from so many quarters in the black community. Many felt his words were too harsh and in some cases hypocritical. I actually felt the same, whatever the private thoughts of a middle class white man observing was worth. Still, I admired his pugnacious attitude and willingness to be provocative enough to start those conversations
It therefore has become quite a shock for me lately to read and hear about allegations pointing to Bill Cosby related to sexual abuse and rape. For months now I have been trying to square the image I’ve always had of this supposedly upstanding, fatherly figure for so many people. For victims who have suffered from such abuse in their lives, the characterization and traits are painfully all too familiar — the offender is able to live a double life as a man of great distinction and honor, while behind closed doors a different and dangerous personality is later revealed. It would appear that Cosby used the former personality to entrap and seduce those who thought he was helping them with their career.
In the last 24 hours a federal judge allowed a deposition to be unsealed, revealing that Cosby admitted to giving quaaludes to women in the 1970’s in order to abuse them sexually.
To me Bill Cosby was a pillar of society. A Kennedy Center Award recipient, Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, for years active in promoting his alma mater Temple University, and also a major booster to African-American schools such as Spelman College, I thought Cosby represented all that was good about entertainers and celebrities. I admired him as a shining example, an American success story.
When these revelations became front page fodder late last year, I kept waiting for some kind of unimpeachable disclosure that would finally clear him. But if the sheer number of women who came forward with their stories didn’t convince me (as in hindsight they should have), the unsealing of this deposition certainly has. The bloom is decidedly off the rose.
Fame and celebrity can only partially mask the true identity of someone. Sometimes a person with sordid or evil intent manages to completely evade disclosure for an entire lifetime (i.e. Jimmy Savile). But famous or not, the truth eventually does manage to become known. If it’s a minor entertainment or sports figure, we raise an eyebrow, shake our head, and chalk it up to not really knowing much about him/her. However, when it is someone as significant and revered as a Bill Cosby, it’s enough of a shock to bewilder and confound.
I laughed back when basketball great Charles Barkley proudly declared, “I am not a role model.” I’m not laughing any longer. Charles was right; we shouldn’t pick celebrities to be role models. They are bound to disappoint.
Many years ago I stood outside a small club in Hawaii waiting to see one of my rock and roll idols perform at a show. He was a part-owner of that venue then, and I was absolutely pumped to be able to see him while I was on vacation in such an exotic place. As we stood in line, my then-wife pointed him out to me near the front door. He was just standing there all alone. She encouraged me to go up and say hello to him. I held back from doing so because I was shy, and I didn’t want to bother him. But I also feared that he might blow me off. This man was a musical god to me. I didn’t want to chance having my image of him being ruined because of an impetuous act on my part. Sometimes it’s best to just let the mystery be.
I wish Bill Cosby had allowed us to let the mystery be too. We all know too much now.